Advertisement

Why we fight for open meetings

May 14, 2001

Why we fight for open meetings



Three weeks ago, The Herald-Mail filed three requests under the Maryland Public Information Act regarding the Washington County Board of Education.

Two days ago, the newspaper filed a complaint against the Hagerstown Mayor and City Council with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board.

In both cases, we thought you should know that it is an issue of accountability.

I'll start with the Board of Education.

On April 16 we found out by accident that the School Board was holding an unannounced closed meeting at an unspecified location. Over the next 24 hours it was hard to figure out what exactly was going on. School Board member Edward Forrest said he didn't consider it an official meeting so it wasn't advertised. School Board Vice President Bernadette Wagner called it a "planned" executive session.

A day later, Board President Herbert Hardin initially described the secret gathering as an executive function meeting (which does not require advance public notice), then said about six hours later it wasn't.

Advertisement

If that's true and Hardin doesn't change his mind again, then that meeting was held in violation of the state's open meetings law. Why? Because any closed meeting requires advance notification, a public vote to go into an executive session and an official reason for doing so.

There's more. Hardin then blurted out that the School Board held several unannounced meetings recently, but wouldn't provide any details on when, where or why.

Around this time we confirmed that the School Board had hired a Columbia, Md., law firm for reasons it still has not publicly disclosed. The School Board also doesn't want you to know how much of your tax dollars is being spent to pay for the law firm.

So, our first PIA request of April 17 sought to find out how much the law firm had been paid as well as the dates, times and locations of all meetings held by the School Board since Jan. 1.

The next day, April 18, we confirmed that a Gaithersburg, Md. detective agency had been hired by the Columbia law firm to do investigative work for the Washington County Board of Education. We know this because the detective for the agency told us so even though School Board members refuse to comment.

Two obvious questions are: "How much is this costing and what is it for?" Those questions and several others were part of an April 19 PIA request filed after the School Board balked at answering.

On April 19, Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett resigned. Why he has resigned has never been explained, and the School Board has offered nothing more than a cursory public statement of a need to move in a new direction.

Setting aside a series of questions stating the obvious - such as what the heck is going on? - we made a simple inquiry about the amount of money being spent in a buyout for the superintendent. In short, we were told to scram. Board President Hardin's exact words in an April 20 story were, "You will not be hearing anything about that."

That morning after Hardin's remarks were published, the newspaper filed a third PIA request, this time asking for the amount of taxpayer money being spent in a buyout for the superintendent. It seems likes everyone, except the School Board, knows that an elected board can't write checks with taxpayer money without some kind of accountability. That's why checks are always subject to the Public Information Act.

What the School Board was trying to get away with was not only outrageous, but such a blatant violation of state law that we felt we had no choice but to go after them again.

Fortunately, someone came to their senses because by April 22 (a Sunday afternoon), faxes were sent out acknowledging the School Board had agreed to give Bartlett $35,000.

We're still waiting on the April 17 and April 19 PIA requests. We'll let you know what happens.

As for the Hagerstown mayor and City Council, their latest actions have left me speechless.

In the fall of 1999 we filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board because we believed it was bizarre and irresponsible that an elected board didn't have official minutes for at least 193 meetings spanning 12 years. The compliance board agreed with us and found the mayor and council in violation of state law.

We thought that was the end of that.

Wrong.

Now it turns out that there are still minutes from 81 meetings of the current administration that took office in June 1997 that will never be officially approved.

Why? That's a good question.

Apparently the minutes are prepared in draft form. But one councilman (Wallace McClure) says he doesn't have time to read them and another (Lewis Metzner) says he can't confidently determine whether the minutes are accurate so he doesn't want to vote on them.

Whew.

I guess by now you're probably wondering, like I am, why did the city waste hundreds of hours preparing minutes for meetings that the council isn't going to read, can't verify as being accurate and won't vote to make an official part of its record?

Like we did a year ago, we think that conduct should not go unchecked, which is why we have filed a second complaint regarding the minutes with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board.

In both instances the message here is "accountability." Members of both elected boards should take the time to at least look it up in a dictionary. The law says there should be accountability, and we will continue to pursue it.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131 extension 7594 or e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|